Here and There

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Legislative session policies sometimes predictable, sometimes not

*First appeared in the Dec. 26 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

It’s two days before Christmas as I write this final column of 2013. C-SPAN is on the tube, and I’m suffering from the seasonal cold…which reminds me that today is my last day to sign up for Obamacare and be covered at the start of the new year.

Bah-humbug.

Healthcare is going to be one of the big items in the 2014 Legislative Session: Should we expand the Medicaid program? How much money does the Division of Medicaid actually need? And so on.

Education issues have already bubbled up, with some calling for across-the-board teacher pay raises. One article I saw said teachers haven’t gotten raises in seven years, but that’s not true (unless someone isn’t following the law…and then we’ve got another problem). Mississippi law (§37-19-7) requires teaches to get a bump in pay every year, and you get more based on tenure and education level.

According to the Miss. Dept. of Education, the base salary for an entry-level teacher (that is, with a bachelor’s degree and no full-time teaching experience) is $30,900. Compare that amount to the average entry-level salary for all occupations in Mississippi - $17,730, according to the Miss. Dept. of Employment Security. In addition to base pay, public school teachers get state health insurance and a pretty sweet state retirement.

I’ve heard rumblings from others about pay raises for regular state employees coupled with refrains that “state employees haven’t gotten raises in five, six, seven years.” I guess these folks have turned a blind eye to the fact the Legislature and individual state agencies authorize pay raises for employees every single year. For example, about $12 million worth of pay raises were given this year, and nearly double that, or $23 million, were given last fiscal year.

(By the way: I am not against pay raises. I am simply for a full presentation of facts.)

It remains to be seen whether gun laws or a focus on mental health issues will arise in 2014, as a result of the Newtown shootings.

What is not a mystery, though, is that the T1 Coalition will make a splash as it advocates increasing the gas tax as a way to generate more revenue to maintain Mississippi roads and bridges. To my knowledge, no statewide elected official has endorsed raising taxes in 2014.

Last week, a study committee released recommendations on ways to cut costs in the state’s correctional system without jeopardizing the safety of law-abiding citizens. It’s hard to see a scenario in which the 2014 Legislative Session doesn’t at least consider several of those proposals, if for no other reason than to identify savings and redirect those funds to other priority areas like education (see also, “pay raises”).

Of course, all of these issues relate back to my personal favorite issue: The state budget. Teacher and/or state employee pay raises; Medicaid expansion; actual Medicaid costs; corrections reform; and even mental health reform comes with a major price tag. It will be interesting to see these policies shape up within the context of a limited state budget and a restrained appetite for bonding.

This is just a snapshot of issues to be discussed and, as any seasoned session-watcher knows, is by no means all-inclusive of the topics du jour. There will be issues that arise during the session that no one is thinking about today (and no one will care about tomorrow). That’s why legislative sessions are always exciting ways to ring in the new year.

Merry Christmas, y’all, and see you in this space next year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On the first day of Session, my Legislature gave to me…

*First published in the Dec. 19 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

It’s mid-December already. Can you believe it? We’re one step closer to welcoming St. Nick into our houses and legislators into our capitol. This column (the third installment of a four-part series on the legislative session) will look at the political dynamics coming Jan. 7, the first day of the 2014 Regular Legislative Session.

I’ve been feeling some major Christmas spirit this year, so I’d like to look at session politics through a “12 Days of Christmas” prism.

On the first week of session, legislators will give to us their best partridge (in a pear tree?) impressions. The famous bird of song has an aversion to high places and long flights, and it doesn’t build its nest in trees (too risky). Like this bird, I imagine most legislators will exercise caution not to fly too high initially while they scope out the political dynamics of 2014.

Don’t expect to see any peace-bearing turtle doves gliding through the hallways of the State Capitol this year, either. These second gifts of Christmas likely won’t perch at the dome, considering the upcoming race between Jones County native State Senator Chris McDaniel and incumbent U.S. Senator Thad Cochran; partisan fights over Obamacare; and so on. Remember that we’re inching closer to re-election year (2015), which means everything will be weighed against its campaign implications.

With so much at stake this year, you can bet your bottom dollar the session will be chock full of French hens. (Finally we have found a Christmas gift appropriate for legislative proceedings!) I guarantee we’ll see passionate floor speeches, hyper-partisan legislation introduced, the works. I’d wager a few legislators will play the role of calling (or, more accurately, “Colly”) birds which are known for reacting favorably toward shiny bills (hey, it takes money to run for re-election, right?).

There’s always some kissing of the rings at the Capitol, which leads us to our five golden rings of Christmas. This time-honored tradition usually reaps its own reward, much like the production of the eggs from the six geese-a-laying. You’ve got to sow seeds of political goodwill to get any legislation passed, regardless of the bill’s individual merit. The payoff? An egg or two in your favor.

Capitol staff (lawyers, policy wonks, budgeteers, committee assistants, and others) will be working hard to keep the legislative swans a-swimming along as peacefully as possible, and for that they should be commended.

Lobbyists and advocates will do their best milk-maid impressions to squeeze out legislative support for their various clients, interests, and causes. It’s not a popular nor easy job, but in many ways very necessary to keeping the government wheels a-spinning.

If you’re wondering where one might find ladies dancing and lords-a-leaping during the session, that’s easy: At any of the numerous legislative receptions held during the session. Receptions are a must for capitol dwellers, as they provide a double whammy – a place to network and a place to get free food and drink.

We’re sure to see more than eleven pipers piping about bills, initiatives, and so on. Bagpipes have traditionally been used in a military context, and it seems the political equivalent is hosting press conferences to announce the onset of a political battle. Expect lots of press conferences, events, and other media-driven bagpipes during these next three months.

Much like pipers, drummers drumming have played crucial roles by providing a steady marching beat to armed forces. This session, be on the lookout for anyone who’s not marching to the beat of his army’s drum cadence, as that is usually a sign of political unrest.

My disclaimer, of course, is that I make these tongue-in-cheek comparisons to give readers a somewhat humorous look at the political dynamics in every legislative session – regardless of which political party is currently in power. The capitol culture is an environment in which quirks are the norm, personalities rule the day, but, importantly, those in positions of power truly want to help their constituents. This shared goal is what makes the capitol dome go ‘round, and it is what drives the adoption of policies that help Mississippians from the top to the bottom of the state.

The process isn’t always pretty, but the fact that good legislation is adopted is, you could say, something of a Christmas miracle.




Thursday, December 12, 2013

Third time’s the charm: An overview of the Mississippi State Capitol

*First appeared in the Dec. 12 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

As a precursor to the quickly approaching legislative session, I have decided to focus my December columns on four main components of the session: The people; the place; the policies; and the politics. Last week in this space, we met some of the people running your state Capitol; this week, let’s learn a little about the building itself.

Located on the site of the old state penitentiary, the Mississippi State Capitol (also known as the “new” capitol) has been the seat of the state’s government since 1903. Although three capitol buildings have been erected in Jackson, only two of them remain: The current New Capitol and the Old Capitol, which, from 1839 to 1903, served as our official statehouse. It has since been turned into a lovely museum.

Fun fact about the Old Capitol Museum: In 2005, it sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina and had to be closed while renovations were underway. To commemorate its re-opening, the 2009 Legislative Session gaveled in at this building.

The (new) State Capitol was designed by St. Louis-born architect Theodore Link, and its construction cost in excess of $1 million. Interestingly, the bill was paid by back taxes from a lawsuit settlement with the Illinois Central Railroad.

The New Capitol seems to live up to Gov. A.H. Longino’s famous description, in which he calls the building a “reflex of the State’s public spirit, pride, and integrity.”

Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, the New Capitol is a Beaux Arts-style building designed to house all branches of Mississippi state government. These days, however, the Capitol is the Legislature’s playground (with the exception of the ceremonial office of the Governor on the third floor and a small office for the Secretary of State).

Given my background as a governor’s staff member, I have spent many days, nights, and early mornings in that ceremonial office. It’s a beautiful, if not gritty, office that has an unexpected elevator.

On to dimensions. According to the legislative website, the “Capitol has a width of 402 feet, and the dome has a height of 180 feet. The interior Rotunda dome contains 750 lights which illuminate the blind-folded lady representing ‘Blind Justice’ and four figures that played a role in Mississippi history: two Native Americans, a European explorer and a Confederate soldier. An eagle adorns the top of the central dome and is made of copper coated with gold leaf. The eagle is 8-feet high and 15-feet wide.”

Unofficially, I’ve always been told that the copper coated eagle on top of our Capitol dome faces south – not north – in a show of post-Civil War defiance against the U.S. Capitol. I have no idea if that’s true.

If you visit the New Capitol, you’ll walk into the “front” of the building (the front faces south, like the eagle) and enter the first floor. In addition to the Capitol Gift Shop (which you should really check out), the Hall of Governors is located on this level. Portraits of the state’s governors since the creation of the Mississippi Territory in 1798 adorn the hallways; you simply cannot walk down the corridor without feeling powerful and occasionally creepy gubernatorial stares.

Fun fact about two pictures in the hallways: Walter Leake, Mississippi’s 3rd governor, is an ancestor of the 63rd chief executive, Haley Barbour. Gov. Leake’s portrait is featured in the background of Gov. Barbour’s painting.

Going up a level, you’ll find my favorite floor, as it is home to the former State Library and former Supreme Court chambers which are both now used as committee meeting rooms. Primarily these rooms are used for money committees – that is, the Ways and Means and Appropriations committees in the House and the Finance and Appropriations committees in the Senate. The Rotunda area on floor two doubles as an unofficial lobbyist hangout.

On the third floor rests the power, as this level holds the Legislative chambers (both House and Senate); the ceremonial office of the Governor, and the offices of the Lt. Gov. and the Speaker of the House. The fourth floor is home to the Capitol press corps and entrances for public viewing of the House and Senate chambers.

I haven’t even mentioned some of the coolest Capitol features, such as the “stables” (literally the old horse stables – now the Capitol cafĂ© area) and the myriad materials used throughout the building such as marble, faux marble (Scagliola), and beautiful stained glass. To appreciate these aspects fully, you’ll need to see it firsthand.

The New Capitol is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for self-guided tours. Free guided tours are offered each day at 9:30 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 2:30 p.m. If you’ve got a group, give the Capitol folks a call at 601-359-3114 to arrange a special tour (or email tours@house.ms.gov).

Making time to tour the statehouse is, well, a capitol idea.

Friday, December 6, 2013

‘Tis the season for meeting the people of your state capitol

*First appeared in the Dec. 5 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Ah, December. The month we band together to sing songs about sleigh bells and snowmen from colder, foreign, and perhaps fictitious lands up north. December means family jaunts to singing Christmas trees, holiday cantatas, and festivals of light. Tacky sweater parties rival sequin-heavy cocktail hours as the premiere events for fashionable holiday revelers.

This most wonderful time of the year brings with it almost obligatory seasonal fights: Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays. Christ the Savior is Born versus Santa Clause is Coming to Town. And let’s not forget the separation-of-church-and-state hullabaloo about those pesky Nativity scenes displayed annually at the state capitol.

…which reminds me of something else, actually. December isn’t just a harbinger of gift giving and receiving; it also means the Legislature, like Santa, is coming to town.

In honor of the upcoming January session, I’d like to dedicate December’s columns to four components of capitol goings-on: The people, the place, the policies, and the politics.

If you aren’t familiar with the many faces of the statehouse, rest easy: ‘Tis the season to meet some of the people at your state capitol.

Let’s start with Kenny, the elevator operator who has been a Capitol fixture for as long as I can remember. Kenny takes tourists, legislators, and staff members to their desired floors, entertaining his guests with stories along the way. For someone who spends a lot of time in an elevator, Kenny knows (or believes he knows) just about everything happening within the building.

Before you get to the elevators, stop by the Capitol Gift Shop on the ground floor to meet Emily. I first met Emily during my week as a high school page for the House of Representatives. At the time, she was working for the House and was fond of my Uncle Gary for whom I was paging (he is the District 88 Representative). These days, I sometimes visit her at the gift shop where she urges me to purchase one of the many Mississippi-themed items available for sale. For Christmas, they’ve got glass ornaments in the shape of mockingbirds.

Our next person of interest is Capitol Curator Brenda Davis, who does yeoman’s work in keeping the statehouse in order. From organizing tours to ensuring stairways are painted in historically-appropriate colors, Brenda always has a project or two up her sleeve. This week, I understand she’s preparing for Friday’s Old Jackson Christmas by Candlelight Tour, which includes a stop at the Mississippi State Capitol. (Dec. 6 in Downtown Jackson – more information by calling 601.576.6800).

A lawyer by training, Secretary of the Senate Liz Welch is the next person of interest on our meet-the-people tour. In her role, Liz is involved in virtually all Senate proceedings; nothing is too large or small for her to handle. Like Brenda, Liz has a passion for preserving and promoting the Capitol. Of course, that makes sense, given her decades of experience in state government and personal connection with the building (her mother served in the House for many years).

The other chamber’s equivalent to Liz is Andrew Ketchings, Clerk of the House of Representatives. A native of Natchez, Andrew and I met many years ago while working as members of Gov. Barbour’s staff. He is a no-nonsense, get things done sort of guy who, by the way, can run faster and longer than anyone reading this column. Drawing on his background as a former legislator, Andrew also keeps the House running, so to speak, which is no easy task.

Highlighting other staff members, legislative committee assistants, budget office workers, and even elected officials themselves would take more space than is given here. But I’ve got the perfect solution: Put on your civic hat and travel to the Capitol to meet everyone yourself.